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The Pitfalls Of Creating A Disaster Recovery Program From Scratch


Scientists say powerful storms are becoming more frequent and more intense. Yet, there's no guidebook, no national plan for how states and communities are supposed to recover. What the country does have, though, is money. Taxpayers send billions to help. NPR and the PBS "Frontline" have spent the past year investigating the business of disaster and found millions going to waste, mired in bureaucracy and red tape and largely paid out to private contractors. NPR's Laura Sullivan brings us this second of two stories with a look at the recovery efforts in New York and what happens when you build a program from scratch.

LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The night of Superstorm Sandy in the fall of 2012, Nick and Diane Camerada decided to stay. They had lived on Staten Island with their four boys for 20 years, never had a flood. And then that night, the water came, pooling up through the floor.

DIANE CAMERADA: You see the water keep rising. And you're wondering if it's ever going to stop.

SULLIVAN: As the water filled their first floor, they ran to the second floor window.

CAMERADA: And you're seeing things floating by.

NICK CAMERADA: Shipping containers coming down the block.

CAMERADA: Like a pinball...

CAMERADA: Like it's just banging off...

CAMERADA: ...Bouncing off the houses.

CAMERADA: ...Taking people's houses out.

SULLIVAN: The next morning, the water receded.

CAMERADA: It was just devastation.

CAMERADA: We lost everything.

SULLIVAN: Hundreds of thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed. One hundred forty-seven people lost their lives. The president came to visit.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Folks, if you could just hang out where you are, he'll come up and shake your hands...

SULLIVAN: Nick and Diane Camerada ran out to the street.

CAMERADA: I was like - wow, he came right to me.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Where are you guys at - where are you guys staying at?

CAMERADA: We started talking and...

CAMERADA: He shook my hand.

CAMERADA: Shook his hand.

CAMERADA: We started talking. We had a good conversation for a while.


OBAMA: My commitment to you is that I'm going to stay on it.

CAMERADA: All right.

CAMERADA: Just don't forget about us Staten Islanders.

OBAMA: That's my point. That's why I came here.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: God bless you.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: God bless you.

SULLIVAN: Three years later, Diane Camerada is sitting at a table in her house. Her first floor is still a wreck down to the studs. She digs out a newspaper with a picture of her talking to the president.

CAMERADA: I want to take this. And I want to mail it to him. And I want to say - remember me? - because we're still suffering down here. And it's not just me. It's a lot of my neighbors too.

SULLIVAN: Taxpayers sent $8 billion to New York and New Jersey after the storm. But in the hardest hit areas, it's not easy to see where that money went. Tommy Consulo is driving the neighborhoods of Staten Island. He's a community leader who's trying to help residents rebuild. Block after block, homes are boarded up and abandoned. Others have been knocked down, and the lots are empty. Many seem to be at a standstill.

TOMMY CONSULO: This is New York. And if we can't handle a situation like this any better than the way we handled this one, the rest of the country's in trouble.

SULLIVAN: Consulo pulls around a corner and points to a rickety, one-story bungalow. It's on stilts, 15 feet in the air.

CONSULO: See how high it's going to be?


CONSULO: That's the height.

SULLIVAN: You're going to walk up to the front door up there?




SULLIVAN: What's happening in this neighborhood and neighborhoods all along the coasts of New York and New Jersey is the result of multiple city, state and federal programs. Some encourage homeowners to renovate. Some encourage them to elevate. Others encourage them to sell their homes to the state so they can be leveled.

CONSULO: Oh, here's Frank.

SULLIVAN: Consulo pulls over to talk to his friend Frank Mosczcynski. He's a construction manager for several projects in the area.

FRANK MOSCZCYNSKI: What's up, brother? How are you?

SULLIVAN: Mosczcynski's working on a rebuild of a house on the corner. His own home is just a couple doors down.

Where's your house?

MOSCZCYNSKI: Right here.

SULLIVAN: That's your house?

MOSCZCYNSKI: Yeah, I actually lived right here. And I would definitely move back here tomorrow if I had the chance.

SULLIVAN: That's no longer possible. Even though he's rebuilding other people's homes, he's decided to take the buyout and leave.

MOSCZCYNSKI: Ninety percent of the community will have disappeared. And there'll be a handful of homes that are going to try to weather the next storm.

SULLIVAN: If you're thinking no one agency or organization seems to have a plan for these streets or along this entire coastal area, you'd be right. Consulo and Mosczcynski say homeowners face a dizzying array of directives and programs.

CONSULO: You need all the agencies working together.

SULLIVAN: How many agencies are we talking about here?


MOSCZCYNSKI: Oh, at least.

CONSULO: Five agencies.

MOSCZCYNSKI: Probably a few more.

SULLIVAN: Do most people know how to navigate five agencies?



MOSCZCYNSKI: No. People don't know because they don't understand that process. And, you know what, that's a very difficult process.

SULLIVAN: For as much as homeowners don't know their way around recovery programs, neither, it seems, does the government. New York City, like most places after a disaster, turned to private companies to run the city's rebuilding efforts. The result weren't good according to auditors. The first year of the program called Build it Back had problems with mismanagement, overbilling and incompetence.

The city audit found companies were paying workers little more than minimum wage, but then charging the city rate of $40 to $100 an hour for those same jobs. In other instances, contractors billed the cities $200,000 monthly retainers. Amy Peterson was brought in to overhaul the program and bring it back under city control. She says construction is now underway. Homes are getting elevated. And she's feeling optimistic.

AMY PETERSON: It's going really well. And we have worked really hard to help these communities recover. And we really overhauled the program to make it work for homeowners.

SULLIVAN: At the end of the day, though, taxpayers will have spent $1.7 billion on the program. It's planning to elevate 2,000 homes and help renovate 7,000 others in an area where more than 300,000 homes were affected. Diane and Nick Camerada signed up or Build it Back not long after they met the president. Not much has happened. They were told they would have to close some old building permits from a home renovation years ago before Build it Back would elevate their home. But they say to do that, they will have to renovate their first floor and bring it up to code, which means they will then have to rip it all out when the house gets elevated.

CAMERADA: The floor, the walls, the doors - everything is going to be thrown away so that the house could be lifted and rebuilt. It just doesn't make sense.

SULLIVAN: A few months ago, the Cameradas decided to do the renovation. They installed drywall, outlets and doors. Not long after that, I was walking the streets to Staten Island with Amy Peterson. She was pointing out some of the homes they were elevating.

PETERSON: This is the house that they're moving everything over to because they're going to lift.

SULLIVAN: I asked her if she would come with me one street over to the Cameradas' house.

See the house and...

PETERSON: Yeah, yeah.

SULLIVAN: ...Maybe meet them.


SULLIVAN: I can try. Let's go say hello to them.


SULLIVAN: So Diane Camerada...


SULLIVAN: This is Amy Peterson.

PETERSON: How are you?

SULLIVAN: Amy Peterson, this is Diane Camerada...

CAMERADA: Nice to meet you, Amy.

SULLIVAN: ...Build it Back homeowner. So, you know...

Diane got right to the point.

CAMERADA: Why waste people's time, money, energy, goodwill to get something like this done when it's all going to be ripped out and thrown to the curb?

PETERSON: You know, I don't know if this was the best solution or the only solution or a solution.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We're moving forward.

PETERSON: But it - we're moving forward. It's a solution. But I think it's a good example of how complicated this is, right?

SULLIVAN: Suddenly, one of the Build it Back contractors Ducky Johnson comes in from a project down the street.

DUCKY JOHNSON: I mean, ma'am, my hat goes off to them. I've never seen a better working program in anything we've ever worked in our generations.

SULLIVAN: I appreciate you saying that. I mean, you are the paid contractor of the program. But, at the same time...

JOHNSON: No, no. No, I'm telling you....

SULLIVAN: I think at that is...

JOHNSON: Look, I'll take my hat off and (unintelligible) because look - Year 3, this is amazing what's happening.

SULLIVAN: Jim Oddo is the Staten Island borough president.

JIM ODDO: It's an embarrassment to all of us as professionals. We're not making widgets. These - this is not like we screwed up the conveyor belt. These are people.

SULLIVAN: Oddo hadn't heard about the Camerada situation. But he started listing other examples.

ODDO: And I won't even get into the sort of - unless you want to - get into the - let's take a home that's worth $80,000, and let's pour $600,000 into it to elevate it and rehab it.

SULLIVAN: Is that what's going on?

ODDO: That's one case that happened. And it was a - it's - oh, my God. Where do you start?

SULLIVAN: We found that house. Program officials acknowledged the work but say it's an outlier. Spend times in these neighborhoods, though, and homeowners will tell you New York had too many agencies with different ideas, didn't know how to run a housing recovery program, didn't know and maybe still doesn't know the future of its coastal areas. But the greater issue for the rest of the country is that few other places seem to know how to do it better.

Allegations of mismanagement and years-long delays dog programs in New Jersey as well, Louisiana after Katrina and Texas after Ike, Florida after Francis and Andrew. Much of the money for these programs comes from the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington. Marion McFadden is in charge of the grants. And she says the idea is to let states design their own programs.

MARION MCFADDEN: The way that the Congress provides the money, they want us to let the local governments make those decisions.

SULLIVAN: Do you feel you could've maybe brought a little bit more of hammer down to make some of these problems go away?

MCFADDEN: Ultimately, there aren't a lot of hammers here. Is there a better way of doing this? I hope that there is or that we can all work together to do it this way even better because that's what people are counting on the federal government for.

SULLIVAN: Brad Gair has seen recovery as a federal official and a local one. He was one of New York City's disaster recovery managers. He says without hard choices about how to rebuild, where to rebuild and even whether to rebuild, cities and states will keep reinventing a broken wheel.

BRAD GAIR: We're not in a good place. I thought that if I saw the problems that we could fix it.

SULLIVAN: What happened?

GAIR: The exact same thing that happens every time on these - it went bad quickly. We can't afford to keep doing this. Will we keep doing this? I think we will keep doing this exactly the way we're doing it.

SULLIVAN: New York City officials say they've learned a lot. But the exact same disaster rarely hits the exact same place. And when another storm or flood or attack hits somewhere else, that community, somewhere in this country, with no experience or knowledge will create its own disaster recovery program just like New York did. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.